Basic Accounting for the Starting Freelancer

When you’re first thinking of becoming a freelancer, it can certainly be overwhelming. Not only are you faced with the prospect of having to find work on your own, but you have to figure out how to run a business too, and that includes accounting, which can be intimidating. You might be afraid that an accountant is going to be expensive, or that if you don’t do everything right from the beginning, it’ll result in huge headaches down the line. I certainly was.

The good news: you can start small, and it doesn’t have to cost you very much, if anything. While eventually, you’ll definitely want to hire an accountant, you don’t need to wait until you can afford one to start freelancing. When I started, I hadn’t yet found an accountant to help me, and I’m no worse for the wear (though I found a local CPA pretty quickly, and I’m happy I did!).

To be certain you’re taking care of the basics, make sure you have the following steps covered:

1. Open a separate bank account

This is critical! Having a separate account makes it much easier to keep track of business expenses and income, which makes everything much easier come tax time. This doesn’t even need to be an actual business bank account—just a separate checking account that is only for your freelance work. When you’re buying something business related, use this account.

2. Keep all of your receipts

Make sure you have a record of all business expenses. You don’t need a fancy system for this: at a bare minimum, keep any paper receipts in a folder. Ideally, they should be scanned in and saved digitally, so they can be searched and backed up. There are two reasons to keep your receipts: first, if you’re ever audited by the IRS, they’ll want to see them, and second, once you switch to a true bookkeeping system, it’ll help you to figure out what all the charges in your bank account are actually for.

3. Save money for taxes

As an employee, your employer does the work of taking estimated taxes out from your paycheck, so you don’t usually end up owing much, if anything, at tax time. As a freelancer, however, no one’s doing this for you. To make sure you’re not in trouble at tax time, make sure to set aside some portion of every invoice that comes in, and don’t touch it! A good rule of thumb is about 30%, but that definitely depends on where you live and how much you’re making. I prefer to go a little higher, just to be safe, but that’s totally up to you. Put that money in a separate account and don’t touch it until tax time.

Depending on where you live, you probably owe quarterly estimated taxes for the IRS and potentially your state, so make sure you’re keeping on top of those too. Here’s more on that from the IRS.

4. Start budgeting for a CPA

As I said above, you don’t need an accountant from day one, but if you want to do things right, you should start planning on having one, at least to prepare your taxes at the end of the year. A good CPA (Certified Public Accountant) should save you money, even after their fee, because it’s their job to find you all of the available tax deductions when filing. Plus, you should be spending your time focusing on building your business, not filing your taxes.

An accountant can also help you get set up with bookkeeping software, such as QuickBooks or Xero. When I first started working with my CPA, he took some time to walk me through using QuickBooks, so I could keep track of everything myself. Once I learned the basics, I was comfortable doing all the bookkeeping myself, and if I have a question, I just send him an email. Following the first 3 steps above will make the task of importing your transactions much easier.

So, how much should you expect to pay for a CPA? I’d say anywhere from $500-$2000, depending on your situation. For me, I have an S-Corporation, which is slightly more complicated to file than just an LLC or Sole Proprietorship, so my bill last year was a little over $2000. When you’re talking to potential CPAs, be sure to ask them upfront how much tax filing will likely cost, and you can budget accordingly. Since your accountant’s fees are business expenses, they’re tax deductible, which certainly helps with the cost!

How should I structure my retainers?

One of the best ways to start creating recurring revenue for your freelancing business is to use retainers. They help make sure you’re paid up front, in full, and on a regular basis. Sounds great, right? But, how exactly should a retainer be structured?

While there are different types of retainers, I’m going to be talking about the simplest case: a client reserving your time in advance. Maybe they want to make sure they can have access to you in case of an emergency, or for ongoing development work. In this situation, it’s simple: figure out how many hours the client will need, multiply that by your hourly rate. That’s your monthly retainer fee!

For example, if your client needs 30 hours of your time, and your rate is $100, they owe you $3000 at the start of every month. During that month, you agree to set aside 30 hours of your time for them. If they don’t use the hours by the end of the month, they expire, and they have to pay for another month’s retainer. Any hours beyond the initial 30 hours are billed separately, at the same $100/hr rate.

How does this translate into terms? Here’s an example from my own contract:

Customer agrees to pay $100 per hour for 30 hours of work each month. The first month’s payment is due immediately upon contract signing. Thereafter, payment of $3000 is due in advance on the 1st of each month by business check or credit card.

Fees for hours beyond the 30 provided per month will be invoiced separately at a rate of $100 per hour and payment is due within 14 days.

Hours expire on the last calendar day of the month and do not roll over. Unused hours will not be refunded.